December 23, 2004


Gov’t Effort to Stem Human Trafficking Helps Very Few

By Pueng Vongs

He could end up slaving long hours for pennies at a Chinese buffet restaurant.

She could be a Thai woman who thought she was coming to the United States to be a housekeeper but, under threats of bodily harm to her and her loved ones, wait on her masters hand-and-foot 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

She could be a teenager from Mexico, who was promised a job as a waitress but is made to work as a prostitute to pay off exorbitant transportation fees.

They are among the growing number of illegal immigrants who are quietly smuggled into the country and quickly disappear into dark lives of servitude, usually under lock and key. They are victims of human trafficking, the fastest growing crime in the nation. Humans compete with illegal drugs as the hot new commodity.

The Bush administration has grand plans to aid the women, men and children lured or forced into this country for cheap labor or sex services. Its efforts, however, have yet to make a substantial impact and often invite greater peril for the victims.

Officials recently unveiled a glossy $5-million ad campaign against human trafficking. They estimate that the majority of trafficked humans are women and girls from places like China, Thailand and Vietnam used for prostitution or pornography.

Portraits of young and forlorn-looking Asian women grace many official ad posters that promise to “Rescue and Restore” victims of trafficking. Help such as housing, health care, food and even citizenship are available, the ads say.

But what the ads don’t mention is, in order to take advantage of these benefits, victims must first agree to cooperate in the criminal Investigations of their abusers. This is not a viable option for most .

Those who cooperate may face retaliation from their exploiters or risk harm to their loved ones in their homelands. For example, a Thai domestic worker who has agreed to testify against her abuser may want to bring her two children from Thailand to safety before the abuser is released from jail. He often threatened to have them killed if she were to ever seek help.

Victims who come forward must also go through the arduous task of proving themselves survivors of “a severe form of trafficking.” And they must demonstrate they would face extreme hardship if returned to their home country.

“Definitions are too restrictive or open to wide interpretation,” says Kay Buck, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST).

Those who are rejected in the process are left with few painful options, including deportation. Others may be jailed because of their illegal status. Without any resources, some are forced to return to their captors.

Because the risks are so great, the requirements so unwieldy, few victims actually are able to take advantage of government help. In 2000, Congress passed the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act, promising 5,000 temporary visas each year for survivors who could later apply for permanent residency.

Only about 450 persons have received the T-visas or other benefits since 2000, out of an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 persons trafficked annually.

There are other reasons why the number of victims taking advantage of the act is so low.

Identifying victims is frequently in the hands of local law enforcement. Many may misidentify them, or worse, arrest them because of their illegal status. It does not help that many survivors come from countries where they have learned not to trust local officials, who can be brutally corrupt.

Children may fear officials even more. Only some 45 children have received visas or benefits since 2000. Yet some studies indicate children make up one-third of trafficking cases.

“Most children come alone and are too traumatized to be able to convince law enforcement that they are survivors of trafficking,” says Margaret MacDonnell, children services specialist with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services.

Advocates say too much emphasis is being put on cases involving trafficking for the sex industry, to appeal to the administration’s conservative constituents. Labor cases, they say, are being neglected.

Trafficking cases are almost evenly divided between the sex industry and those involving domestic service, agriculture, factory, restaurant and hotel work, according to a recent study by the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and the nonprofit group Free the Slaves.

This picture contrasts with government estimates that 70 percent of cases involve sex trafficking. Of the 31 cases prosecuted last year, 25 cases involved sex trafficking. More studies must be done to get a true picture of the breakdown.

Government officials are increasing efforts to train local law enforcement, involving social workers in helping to identify victims and funding community groups to help them navigate the legal maze. But more must be done, says Buck, whose organization operates the only shelter in the country dedicated to trafficking survivors. There is a need for more shelters to encourage trust and a sense of safety. Trust is also a key component in encouraging victims to cooperate in criminal investigations.

Perhaps the most important help for victims is to withdraw the mandatory requirement of participation in criminal investigations as a condition for getting government help.

Advocates want government to follow the models of asylum or domestic violence cases, where testifying is not a requirement, says Kathleen Kim of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. This, she says would go a long way in encouraging victims to seek rescue.

Pueng Vongs is a journalism fellow in Child and Family Policy at the University of Maryland-Foundation for Child Development.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage